Road to the General Election: Will Transport Stay on Course?

During the party conferences, transport featured heavily. The Conservatives managed to unintentionally allow HS2 to dominate their week and Labour gleefully accepted the gift. But transport will, despite the hopes of some, fade again when it comes to the General Election.

The conferences are where each party comes together to meet, discuss and, for some, make decisions. Party members, elected representatives (MPs, mayors, councillors etc) attend but the conferences also attract the media and those looking to engage with the parties. They still play a significant role and that means the party leaderships look to manage every aspect of their time in the spotlight.


The cancellation of HS2 north of Birmingham was allowed to rumble on throughout the Conservative conference in Manchester simply so that the PM himself could inflict the final wound. It was a masterclass in how not to manage an issue.

Secretary of State, Mark Harper, spent his speech warning of the 'sinister' 15-minute cities with local councils telling people how often they can go to the shops and how central government will put in rules limiting the use of 20mph zones.

The apparently hastily pulled-together plan for Network North, included by the PM to offset the damage of cancelling a very large part of HS2 project, initially appeared attractive to many. That many smaller, local transport projects would now go-ahead fitted exactly with the Conservatives' emphasis on towns rather than cities. The suggestion was that such local projects could happen quickly.

But the list was simply wrong in some instances, contained projects that had already been committed to or from which projects were fairly instantly removed. Instead of the project list being excellent fodder for locally-based election leaflets, it soon became not 'a new approach to transport' but a source of more scrutiny and challenge.


But for Labour, as Louise Haigh's speech showed, there is much work to do. The party did not sign back up for HS2 but will instead review it. The railways will come back into public ownership even if we have little idea what that will look like and Northern Powerhouse Rail will happen but 'within our fiscal rules'.

A Labour Secretary of State for Transport will be a 'passenger-in-chief' which sounds like it could issue in an era of integrated transport but may instead lead to too much central government control.

The General Election

Issues such as health and education, and even defence this time given current world issues, always dominate elections alongside the economy. The paucity of public finances mean that transport will have an even harder job getting any share, post-election. It is not as though one of the parties has a transport infrastructure list that is bigger than the other. That would give it the incentive to shout about such a list at the General Election. Transport rarely features highly on the list of voter concerns so the sad reality is that these party conferences were the exception rather than the rule. Transport will go back to being an election backwater.

Sadly, there will be little incentive for the parties to talk much about transport at the next General Election.